2. A Struggle For Power
Misunderstanding unpacked: "I only have value if I prove my own value by refusing to cooperate with the teacher and/or the classroom and its norms."
Teachers who frame classroom management in terms of compliance/non-compliance are inviting a failure of classroom community. For one thing, there are 36 of them and only one of me. But more importantly, it is a missed opportunity to create the context in which a discouraged child can come to view herself as a community member.
As Dreikurs says,
It is a grave mistake to try to overpower a power-drunk child. It is also futile. In the ensuing battle, which becomes chronic, the child merely develops greater skill in using [their] power and finds greater reason to feel worthless unless [they] can demonstrate it. (Dreikurs, page 61)
Most teachers have heard that they shouldn't engage in a power struggle, but side-stepping the challenge to a power struggle activates reactions that run deep. In addition, if the child's intention is to assert power, any "attempts to make [them] stop only intensify [their] disturbing behavior." (Dreikurs, page 62). Resistance is easier said that done.
What I have found most effective is to build the habit of noticing within myself whenever a student is trying to engage me in a power contest. The secret is to notice the internal trigger, name it, and refrain from reacting with the conditioned habit they are trying to generate.
It takes practice. I find myself mentally chanting, Notice... and refrain... notice... and refrain.
And it works. This is the fastest way I know to defuse the power struggle most of the time.
A couple of notes. The first is, this doesn't mean there are no natural or logical consequences. There definitely are. And one of the things our students are learning is how to function in society.
For example, one always has the power to not do one's tax returns, but then there are consequences. Some of those consequences are serious. But teachers should always avoid making the mistake of believing that we have to be the personal, immediate, and traceable agent of every consequence a student will ever encounter. That's just not sustainable, and teachers need to be in this work for the long haul.
If a student doesn't submit an assignment that is due, I simple place a zero in the gradebook with a comment that late work is always accepted, but is subject to a one-point late fee. Zeroes are erasable. Basically, it's the same as doing your taxes. Shit happens, and sometimes you have to turn things in late. If you learn to plan ahead, there's no late fee. The point is for the student to learn how to meet their deadlines and manage their life's competing obligations. Don't make it into a big deal. Think of yourself as the government agency in charge of tracking and reflecting students' work.
This year I encountered a weird new manifestation of this power struggle. Along with all the teachers at my school, I use Google Classroom as my CMS (Classroom Management System). My policy on homework is to simply check it in as the basic routine step. I ask students to turn in their homework by uploading a photo of the first page of their handwritten work. This is the honor system. Most students most of the time turn in a photo of their own detailed handwritten work as evidence of their effort. Since homework for me is only a record of deliberate practice with metacognitive self-reflection, this is enough. I can tell from students' Burning Questions the next day how deeply they have engaged with the work, and this gives me the formative assessment info I need to adapt my instruction.
Only later -- if there's a problem -- or occasionally -- as a spot check -- do I go through students' homework submissions in more detail.
But this year, I got a surprise at the end of the spring semester.
I noticed that one student had turned in a photo of a cheeseburger with fries in place of his homework for that day. In accordance with my policy, I put a zero into the points field and typed into the comments field, "This is a picture of a cheeseburger with fries. Please upload a photo of this assignment to receive credit, minus a one-point late fee."
No reaction. No emotion. I just switched into functioning as the conduit of natural and logical consequences for a decision that was made.
Of course, this experience encouraged me to look at his other submissions for the semester. And sure enough, I had missed some other cheeseburger submissions as well. Because I am acting as a neutral agency in this regard, I changed all of the scores for those assignments to zeros and copied and pasted my same neutral instructions into the comments field. There were also photos of a sneaker, a bicycle, and photos of somebody else's homework with their name printed at the top. I modified all scores for these and copied my neutral instructions into the comments field. Zero, zero, zero.
Naturally, the student's grade started dropping precipitously, which finally prompted them to come up to me and apologize for the huge clerical mistake they had made. They asked if they could resubmit these homeworks. "Of course!" I told them. "That's the whole idea!"
In this case, the natural consequence of having to redo all those homework assignments was the need to spend time redoing them all -- knowing that I would look them over far more carefully than I might have done before, and also that I might discover even more phony assignments.
A valuable lesson was received and integrated with far less conflict and more face-saving than if I had become emotionally activated. The lesson for me was, Don't bite the hook.
There were other students who had done the same thing as well, and I treated everybody who had done so with the most consistent standard of fairness I know. One student, who actually submitted photos of a table mate's work was horrified to learn that I'd sent that table mate and their parents an email notifying them that somebody else had been submitting photos of their work and that in California, this is considered academic cheating under the Education Code and would be a serious offense. Then the student learned that I'd sent an email to them and to their parents as well about the situation.
Most students are good people. But they are also adolescents and they make ridiculous choices and mistakes. The horror for those two students of being caught out and unmasked for their parents was far more powerful than any rage-based consequence I could have meted out in the heat of emotion. And these two students both digested powerful lessons about the consequences of not living up to their own responsibilities. They each apologized to me personally and it was clear that they're not going to do this again. They were also grateful for the grace they were shown.
Never argue with a power-drunk teenager. Find ways to notice and name the power move that don't jeopardize the underlying relationship between you unless you have absolutely no other option.
Our job is to support students in learning to rise to the occasion.